Friday, June 1, 2018

Despite tragic accidents, the self-driving car money trail tells one story: They’re here. They’re autonomous. Get used to it.

A Waymo-branded self-driving Chrysler Pacifica.
Waymo-branded self-driving Chrysler Pacifica. Photo: FCA.
It doesn’t take much research to at least get a “Zen sense,” if not a quantitative sense, that auto enthusiasts tend to be, to say the least, ambivalent about the self-driving vehicle juggernaut.

And that’s not hard to understand: it's all about the sense of individual freedom and control that comes from owning and driving your own vehicle. The American driver knows that he or she can, theoretically, at least, decide on any given day to pack up the car and go anywhere in this vast country—whether it’s a temporary vacation or a permanent move.

That’s a kind of freedom that many if not most in the rest of the world can certainly not take for granted. And it’s so programmed into the DNA of America’s love affair with the automobile that it’s understandable that the idea of turning control over to hardware and software would be enough to give any red-blooded car enthusiast the heebie jeebies.

Justified or not, at least at the reptilian-brain level, steps toward giving up control of the vehicle are going to feel like steps toward giving up some of that freedom.

But here’s the reality—for now, at least: it isn’t easy to put the genie back in the bottle. Technology marches on, and so does the money-fueled progress of industry. And a couple of news stories from the automotive industry yesterday make it pretty easy to follow the money and see the clear direction that march is taking toward an autonomous future.

GM, for example, announced a partnership with SoftBank Vision Fund, an investment fund operated by the multinational holding company SoftBank Group, to invest $2.5 billion in GM Cruise Holdings LLC, a division that is managing GM’s efforts to prepare its Cruise line of autonomous vehicles for the commercial market.

Another big autonomous-vehicle announcement came from Fiat Chrysler Automobiles—in the midst, interestingly enough, of apparently very premature speculation that FCA might announce the death of the Chrysler marque today. In the announcement, FCA revealed an agreement to sell up to 62,000 self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans to Waymo, a subsidiary of Google-parent Alphabet engaged in self-driving car development.

So based on the money trail, the march toward an autonomous-vehicle future shows few signs of losing momentum. What role human-controlled vehicles will play in the automotive future that is taking shape remains to be seen, but it seems all but inevitable that we will at least be sharing more and more of the road with self-driving cars.

All that said, money is money—and we as consumers should not underestimate the power of voting with our wallets. We just need to make sure that thinking brains continue to be attached to those wallets so that we make decisions out of our own individual thought, instead of blindly marching in line, like automatons ourselves, to where the drivers of mega-scale industry and finance want to drive us.

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